PARADISE, Calif. — “There’s hundreds and hundreds of reasons why we shouldn’t build, why we shouldn’t come back,” Bert Clement said as he sat beside his wife, Jo Lynne, in an RV parked in the driveway of the home he lost a year ago in the Camp Fire.
—AR produced by Henry Keyser and Rebecca Corey
Outside the trailer on Forest Lane, the smack of a nail gun punctured the crisp air and an electric saw screamed its way through a 2x4. A crew had already erected the exterior walls and laid plywood for the roof of what was to be a replica of the three-bedroom house where Bert and Jo Lynne lived for 13 years. Next would be shingles and siding, perhaps before the autumn rains arrived.
The Clements are in the minority in Paradise. In April, after FEMA had scraped clean their lot of charred, toxic remains, they received the seventh permit to rebuild in a town where approximately 13,000 homes were incinerated, 95 percent of all structures in the Butte County town were destroyed and 85 people lost their lives.
“Most of our friends, a lot of them can’t even come up here,” Jo Lynne, 60, a retired bank teller, told Yahoo News. “Even though it’s 100 percent better, they can’t even envision it, so they don’t. Most of them have left.”
Given the trauma that was unleashed on the approximately 27,000 residents of Paradise on the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, it’s no wonder. The windows of the Clement house had been covered for repainting on that morning, but Bert realized something was amiss when he stepped outside at 6:30. The same high winds that brought down a PG&E electrical transmission line and sparked the fire in the town of Pulga, 10 miles away, now thrashed the tree line above the Clements’ home. Though the sky was blue, the air smelled of smoke. Moments later, their daughter Jodi, who was home recovering from a cesarean delivery three days earlier, called. A friend who worked at the fire department had just told her she and her newborn daughter, Gracie Layne, needed to evacuate. Not yet realizing their own home was in danger, the Clements jumped in their Ford Ranger and sped toward Jodi’s home.
The Camp Fire, as it would soon be known, was also on the move, expanding at a rate estimated to be the size of a football field every second. The sky above Paradise was changing. Wisps of brown smoke began to build. Like glowing snowflakes, embers started falling, and soon the approaching inferno cast a sepia glow over the landscape. An area whose enormous pine trees were once coveted for making matchsticks was especially dry that November, having received just one-seventh of an inch of rain over the previous five months. After driving just a few blocks, the Clements discovered that flames had reached an apple orchard at the intersection of Pentz and Merrill roads, a symbolic landmark for a town accustomed to the threat of wildfires.
“Everybody said if it ever crossed Pentz Road, Paradise would be in trouble. Pentz Road would be like a firebreak,” Bert, 69, a retired truck driver for Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., said, his eyes filling with tears. “It had already crossed. And then we knew at that point that Paradise was in trouble.”
In the 10 minutes it took to reach their daughter’s home, the sky had gone black. They loaded the baby’s car seat into the back of Jodi’s Chevy Tahoe, grabbed a few bags and Jo got behind the wheel and they took their spot in the four lanes of traffic inching out of town on Clark Road, one of Paradise’s three main thoroughfares. Though it was now clear just how quickly the fire was devouring the town, the Clements had left their pet Akita at home, so Bert frantically raced back to Forest Lane, while the two women and the baby inched toward safety in Chico, 14 miles west. “If you would have asked me what my name was I couldn’t have told you,” he said. As he turned onto the street where he and Jo Lynne had lived for 13 years, a surreal scene greeted him.
“The flames were like a demon. They were just crazy,” Bert said as if seeing it all over again. “It was just a completely different kind of a flame. It was a flame of ... of ... it just scared you. Because it was so ... it was so alive.”
His neighbors were packing up their cars and trucks. Bert parked his Ranger in the garage and he darted inside the home that his younger brother had built for them, unsure what to grab. He called his wife. “The quilts,” she told him. Made of scraps of fabric passed down from two generations, Jo Lynne had spent the last seven years piecing them together.
Outside, Bert heard someone crying. After putting the dog and the quilts into his pickup, which was hooked up to the couple’s RV, he ran across the street. His neighbor, a woman named Sharon, was pacing in front of her home and told him she and her elderly mother had nowhere to go and didn’t know how they were going to evacuate. Bert ran to next door to a neighbor. “What are you gonna do with your truck?” he asked the man, who threw him the keys. The truck was parked behind a locked gate and the smoke was by then so thick Bert had trouble finding the lock. “’Bert, I don’t know how to drive this,” she told him as she got into the pickup.
“Sharon, just pretend,” he replied.
Back on Clark Road, the traffic had only worsened, and Jo Lynne and her daughter had barely made it a few miles when she noticed that the Tahoe’s gas gauge was on empty.
“I said, ‘God, you got to show me that we’re gonna make this,’” Jo Lynne recalled. “My daughter can’t walk because she had a C-section. We have a brand-new baby. We can’t have her outside in the smoke.”
At 9:45 a.m., the wind stoked flames on either side of the road. Like gunfire, propane tanks exploded all around them, the truck’s engine began “bonging,” Jo Lynne remembered. Fortunately, the road to Chico was mostly downhill, and she coasted in neutral as much as possible. Finally, nearly three hours later, they pulled into a Valero gas station at the bottom of the hill, Gracie Layne still sound asleep. Not long after, Bert arrived pulling the RV, the town they’d fled a black-and-orange smudge upon the ridge, the fate of their own home in doubt.
‘I owe it to this place’
For six weeks after the fire ravaged Paradise, destroying nine out of every 10 homes, residents were prohibited from returning. The inferno’s heat had melted nearly everything in its path, leaving behind acrid air and a water system that would take months to make safe for drinking or bathing.
Ken Blanton, a contractor who had built houses in Paradise since 1993, snuck back through the fire lines days after he’d evacuated to see if his house on South Libby Road had survived.
“There were smoldering piles on every other lot that they were still putting out,” Blanton told Yahoo News. “It was like a movie scene, an apocalypse.”
Blanton’s house, like most of the homes in his residential neighborhood, was reduced to a pile of rubble and corroded metal. Blocks away, two buildings where he ran his business were also gone, as were most of the new homes his company was in the process of building. But even after tallying all that he’d lost, he and his family decided to stay in Paradise.
“I really didn’t feel like I had an option,” Blanton said. “I felt pretty helpless being in a hotel. I’m a builder and this community has supported me for the last 26 years of my life, and supported me good. I owe it to this place to give whatever I can to get back up here.”
The Clements got the news that their home hadn’t survived from a police officer who snapped a picture of their barren lot. As they waited for the all clear, they lived out of their trailer in and around Chico, moving from the driveway of their daughter’s friend to the home of one of Bert’s former co-workers.
“Lots of people offered us a place to stay. The support was incredible,” Jo Lynne said.
The generosity continued to flow, with some local restaurants refusing to let the Clements pay for their meals when they learned where they lived.
“Friends that we haven’t seen since we got married or whatever would see that we were, you know, on Facebook, seeing that we had issues and the whole deal,” Jo Lynne said. “And they’re like, ‘What’s your address?’ And they would send us a check for $500 or whatever. It’s like, wow. This is amazing.”
Finally, nearly two months after the flames chased them down the ridge, the Clements drove up to their property.
“We pulled in the driveway,” Bert said. “We hadn’t seen it. And we didn’t say nothin’. And I looked at her and she looked back at me, and I says, ‘How you feel?’”
As if on cue, Jo Lynne reenacted her response.
“It feels like home, you know?” she said. “Pulling in the driveway and, you know, our front yard made it and our mailbox made it. And it’s like ... it still feels like home, you know?”
Aside from the melted frame of Bert’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle and that of the Ranger, little else remained. But as they walked the footprint of the property, the Clements found a trail of nails that Bert’s older brother, a carpenter, had used to assemble their home, and scooped them up for safekeeping.
It took two months for FEMA to clear their lot. As they waited, they contacted Blanton and tracked down the architectural plans used in 2005 by Bert’s brother — who died of a heart attack on Nov. 8, 2013, exactly five years before the fire overtook Paradise. In yet another symbolic affirmation, when Bert told his brother’s grown son that he had recovered some of the nails, he offered to drive from Bend, Ore., with the hammers his father had first used to pound them into place.
‘The scary part right now’
By the time Paradise began issuing building permits that spring, the population of the town had fallen to just 2,000 residents. Whole blocks, retirement communities, hospitals, liquor stores, fast food restaurants and much of the downtown were wiped from the map. But Forest Lane illustrated the haphazard pattern wildfires often leave behind. While the Clements and many of their neighbors — including Sharon and her mother — lost everything, two homes directly across the street were untouched.
Even for those who still have homes, the scale of the devastation in Paradise is impossible to ignore. Enrollment at Paradise High School, for instance, was down more than 60 percent at the start of the school year.
“Half the kids have all started smoking weed and drinking,” Blanton said. “They’re coping, but the entire high school is screwed up. It’s a huge mental health crisis. My kids are doing OK, but they’re smoking a bunch of weed like all the rest of the kids.”
School administrators in Butte County have spent months trying to recruit counselors to help students, many of whom were left homeless by the fire, make sense of the disaster. Data provided by Butte County Behavioral Health showed that, within the burn area, youth patients made up 83 percent of the total number of local residents on Medi-Cal seeking mental health services from March to September of 2019. For a community experiencing such stark displacement, help of all kinds is in short supply. Roughly half of the police force has quit, and Bert says that he’s recently had a lawnmower stolen from his driveway and tries to avoid leaving his property unattended. Yet the Clements take solace in their Christian faith, marking every milestone in the rebuilding process as a sign that they’re following a larger plan.
“It’s where we feel that God wants us,” Jo Lynne said.
The sight of new construction has been a much-needed tonic for others in Paradise as well.
“The mailman claps when they see this,” Bert said. “We’ve had a couple of policemen come up, and they actually come and, you know, and they thank us, and they take pictures. They do selfies and they put it on Facebook because they’re grateful that we’re coming home.”
But as the anniversary of fire neared, Paradise residents were tested yet again. Citing a forecast of dangerous high winds and desert-low humidity, PG&E announced that as a precaution it would cut power to communities across the state, including those scorched by the Camp Fire. While the public utility, which filed for bankruptcy in January and last month released a plan to offer fire victims $18 billion in damages, had warned customers about shutoffs, the trial run of what residents call the “new normal” born of a perilous mixture of climate change and sorely outdated infrastructure hit Paradise residents hard.
“That was probably one of the most stressful weeks I’ve had,” Blanton said. “The frustration levels. ... I spent all my money putting this house back here. For me being a contractor and having all those emotions, I’m sure for homeowners it’s going to be even worse.”
While the Clements purchased a generator that powered their trailer and kept Blanton’s crew working on their home, there are unknowns that worry them. As the sudden outbreak of the Kincade Fire in nearby northern Sonoma County just two weeks ahead of the anniversary of the Camp Fire illustrated, the risks posed by wildfires continue to increase in California. It’s unclear, however, how long rebuilding in areas susceptible to the dangers will be an option for homeowners.
“I don’t know when this is all done if I’m going to be able to afford it, because I have no idea what this is going to cost,” Bert said. “I mean, is the insurance going to come through? I don’t know. We’re hoping. That’s probably the scary part right now.”
Stepping out onto the green front lawn that somehow survived the Camp Fire’s fury, Bert and Jo Lynne beamed at the sight of workers affixing the first pieces of siding. Jo Lynne then gestured to the tiny American flag still hanging from the mailbox’s original wooden post. “Amazing that this little thing is still here,” she said.
After an hour of recounting all they’d been through, they seem incredibly upbeat, almost as if reliving the horror was itself therapeutic.
“Being able to share our story like this is a joy. To know that yes, it was ugly, it was a disaster, it was life-changing. But through the miracles of — ” Bert says, his eyes watering again as he looks up toward his new front porch. “Up to this point, even this house is a miracle.”
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